The most important goal in clear writing is to write understandably. This means that you must write to address your reader’s interests.
The first step in meeting this goal is to know who you are writing for and why you are writing for that audience. Whether y0ur purpose is selling a product to the general public, writing a scientific paper, preparing a thesis for a degree, or explaining how a stockholder should exercise his/her right to vote at the annual stockholders meeting, it is crtitical to focus on the reader’s interests and write to address those interests. Take the reader’s knowledge and level of understanding into account by considering the makeup of your reading audience. Use language your reader will know and understand.
This approach is emphasized by the U.S. Government in its Report of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the United States Senate (Report) to accompany the Plain Writing Act of 2009 (Act). The Act is an effort to enhance citizen access to government information by mandating that government documents issued to the public be written in “plain” english. (What the government really means is “clear” English.) Substantial credit for many of the suggestions contained in this and other blogs which have appeared in the past and will appear on this blog in the future is owed to the Report. Many of those ideas parallel my own thinking and are simply too useful to be limited to the relatively few individuals who may be involved in government oriented work. I have therefore tried to rewrite, expand, and clarify, many of those suggestions for use in this blog site.
To continue, the Report defines plain writing with respect to the intended audience. It explains that there are no hard rules in plain language except to be clear to your intended reader. Plain writing means organizing and presenting all information in a way that improves readability. Specialized words such as legal or scientific terms should be avoided if not necessary to present the information conveyed.
In other words, it matters if you are writing for a general audience or for a specific reader. A general audience will have varying degrees of reading sophistication. To write for a reader who is sophisticated on a specific subject requires expert knowledge on the writer’s part to make the writing understandable. But obviously, you would not use the same level of sophistication for a reader who will not comprehend it. In the same vein, a less sophisticated reader will have a greater need for understandable writing and may require more education on basic terms or concepts. There is a clear difference in writing for a college professor, steeped in the niceties of academia, and writing for an experienced business owner, accustomed to the hard knocks of the business world. The apporoach you take for one would probably not work for the other.
Important terms or concepts should be written in bold or italics.
Next: creating a profile of your reading audience.
Copyright 2012. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.